It’s been several years since Will Cullen Hart and I last spoke. For my part, I’d stopped writing about music, for the most part. In the interim, however, the changes to Hart’s life, of course, have been far more dramatic. The last time we spoke, as part of some interview with the now post-print New York, The Olivia Tremor Control / Circulatory System frontman had only recently been diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, one of those life-altering moments he had only just begun to come to grips with. Amongst the fallout from the neurological disease was a sort of phantom pain that drove the artist toward hard liquor — a story that ultimately had a silver lining when former fellow Olivia singer Bill Doss convinced him to reform the band.
In July of last year, however, the band announced that Doss had died, leaving Olivia’s third LP unfinished and effectively ending its short-lived reunion. We sat down with Hart to discuss the passing of his childhood friend and longtime band mate, his struggles with MS and what the future looks for the Elephant 6 alum.
WCH: I’m just eating some lentils while I stand here. Not that you needed to know that. But thanks for being interested. I’m glad you’re interested.
BH: Dinner. Context is important.
[Makes a purring sound.] I’m listening.
Since the last time we spoke, Olivia Tremor Control got back together — and you were diagnosed with MS. My understanding is those two events are related.
Many of my friends came to me — I wasn’t sure why I was having a drinking problem. The final person to come to me was Bill Doss. He was like, “dude, you’ve got to stop drinking this much.” I was drinking the big jugs of scotch — a handle. He was like, “If you don’t stop, you’ll die. It’s way too soon. I love you.” He said, “we can get Olivia back together.” I was like, “really? Really?”
I think both of us wanted to do that, but we didn’t see each other for years, for whatever reason. I was like, “fuck yeah!” So we started getting back together and playing every Sunday. And it took off. We have tons of shit recorded. It’s amazing. We got together and just started making shit up. Bill would record it. It was awesome. That’s what happened. It took awhile, but I stopped [drinking] hard alcohol, mostly. I was pretty close to becoming an alcoholic.
I was in a lot of pain from the MS. My right eye started going blind — like in a day, by the way [laughs]. It started shadowing. That’s a problem, obviously. I went to an eye doctor, and the eye doctor sent me to a different doctor. He said, “it’s far beyond this, but I can’t tell you what it is.” But he sent me to my MS doctor, who told me to meet him at the hospital the next morning. He wanted to make sure it was what he thought it was. He gave me a spinal tap and an AIDS test, because he thought it could be that, somehow. I don’t understand how…
It was MS, and for two days, they put steroids in my eye, which did the trick. It hardly shadows now. It’s amazing. It still shadowed for a while, but now I can see great. I have 20/20 vision. It freaked me out — I thought the vision would have been been gone.
You started drinking after you were diagnosed?
Yeah. I had a couple of beers before shows. That’s a lie [laughs]. I was heavy drinking. It was hard liquor.
Knowing that you had an incurable condition?
Physical pain. My back and halfway down my arm were in pain. I was getting signals from my brain that weren’t real. My back really fucking hurt. It was like someone had beat the shit out of me with a baseball bat. I started to relax my body with some alcohol, and then it was more and more and more. And Bill was like, “you’re killing yourself, dude.” Because we’d been hanging out a bit. I don’t know how many years we had spent making shit up at his house, and he said, “let’s do it.” And we started touring. And we have a new double album coming out. Soon — I don’t know when “soon” will be, but it’s called The Same Place.
But the medication has helped with the pain?
Yes. I take this thing called Lyrica, which sends signals to the brain that I don’t hurt. It works pretty good, as long as I don’t overtake those. But I run out at the end of the month, which isn’t good… I’ve been putting away four a day. My wife would say, “you said it doesn’t work,” but it works great. I just like to bitch. Lyrica, like Lyrics.
Aside from serving as a catalyst to get the band back together, has it affected your ability to create music and to paint pictures?
Yes and yes. To be honest. A lot. It’s like a blanket. You can tell I’m excited, I’m an excitable person. But it’s like there’s a big blanket over me sometimes. It’s hard. A wet blanket even [laughs]. It’s a drag sometimes.
Memory things, too. I don’t even know we’re on the phone now [laughs]. But there are some memory issues.
Has it made you want to create stuff more furious, while–
Yeah, it has, but — you’re opening up this whole thing. It also makes me really sleepy. I want to write more songs, but I get sleepy and go to sleep. It sucks. It’s hard to deal with that medicine. But that’s what it comes down to. I need something to kickstart me. Coffee did it for a while… That’s the blanket. You have some idea, but then you have to bend over to plug stuff in, and that shit hurts. It’s a drag. But it’s cool, I have something going on in my brain. I’m excited all the time, just from being alive. The sun rises and I’m excited. It’s another day.
As Bill said [singing], “sun comes up every day.”
So the medicine itself has been a problem, on-top of the existing symptoms.
It’s not the medicine. I’m sleepy without it. It’s just MS in general. I need something to wake me up. But I’m getting it together. After the Bill thing… He died. It’s been very sad. It’s fucked up. But I feel like he’s with me saying, “dude, don’t stop. I wouldn’t want you to fall back into where I helped you from.”
You’re continuing to make music after Bill’s passing?
Yeah, I am. Only recently. For the first couple of weeks after he was gone — we’d stopped touring, to finish the album. I pretended he was in the mountains I was bullshitting myself, but I did some extra work, some overdubs. I added shakers and shit on my 4-track. The main track that we had been working on had three tracks. I spent that first couple of weeks doing stuff, and then… I had some bad spots, but he’d be like, “come on, don’t lose it.”
Bill was such a big part of the concept behind Olivia, especially when you consider the fact that, Circulatory System has many of the same members. He’s really the big part missing from that equation.
Was there a question about whether you could continue calling yourselves that without him?
Yeah. We were like, “Olivia’s done on this plane.” That wasn’t even a question for us. “That’s done. Let’s finish this album, and there can be stuff after that, but when we’re ready to play shows, it’s the Circulatory System.” It’s really sad. It fucks me up, but I think he’d want us to go on as Circulatory System, because he wrote half the songs, basically. Pete [Erchick] wrote some too, but without [Bill], we’re the Circulatory System. I guess we move onto that.
Is the new album finished?
It’s not totally finished. Mostly. We’ve got some backing vocals and a shaker [to add] here and there. And sequencing, because we have tons of stuff for a double album. And we have more than that. We need to figure where the [makes a sound effect noise] goes. Some sounds in-between. Those little tracks.
Like Black Foliage.
Yeah, but it doesn’t really sound like that to me. It’s much more produced, in a good way. It’s still a 4-track cassette, but there’s digital and reel-to-reel. It sounds like Olivia. You play it for your friends and they have to say that [laughs], but it does. When you say Black Foliage, there isn’t as much [more sounds]. It’s in there.
You said you’ll go back to the Circulatory name after the album is wrapped. Is the main difference between the two bands Bill?
Yeah, kind of. I suppose it is. Because I’m the only writer. I’m kind of uncomfortable about it. But the people I work with all know the Olivia guys, and whatnot. There good enough musicians to add what’s needed. If it was an Olivia song and we switched it over [to the Circulatory System], would it be the same thing? Probably. I mean John [Fernandes] would probably add the same thing. Unless he called something out. But you’re kind of right. I have to agree with you. That would be the difference. Good call.
You weren’t trying to make completely different music when you went out as the Circulatory System.
Absolutely not. It’s the same writer with the same craft. The opposite
How closely were you and Bill working to create songs as Olivia? Would one person bring the song for the both of you to work on?
On my parts, it was a lot like that for Circulatory and Olivia. I’d bring something to dub over. Especially if it’s something I wrote that day, I’d put the guitar down and some vocals and some drum, and we’d go from there. I
We’re the two of you actively writing together?
On this last record, quite a bit, actually. You’ll hear our vocals answer each other quite a bit. We did more this time on purpose. One person would say something like, “you should make this in in Waltz time.”
Was the process similar to what it was when you stopped playing together?
It was just like that. It was, “I missed you. Who cares what happened?” It was total inspiration. It was beautiful. You’ll hear it on the record. It was sad… [singing] “We take advice from the oceans.” That’s one of the songs. It makes me excited, but sad. We hadn’t seen each other in a long time, but it was the same sound. It was totally amazing and beautiful. And we got together beyond just Sundays, but that was the day that Olivia came together. We didn’t have any shows plan, so we would just make stuff up. We did quite a few instrumentals one day.
It was more Bill saying, “let’s play music,” not “let’s get the band back together?”
No, he said, “let’s get Olivia back together,” but we wanted to make a record before playing any shows, but we decided against that, because we knew that we were making a record. So we put out a song — a trilogy [“The Game You Play Is in Your Head, Pts. 1, 2, & 3”], which we started in ’95 and added to later. The bulk of it was done then.
Was part of it not wanting to play a set entirely populated by 15-year-old songs?
I didn’t, but I think Eric [Harris] was like, “we’ll do this, but after this, let’s do 50-percent new material. I don’t want to do oldies. ” I was like, “when you see a band, do you want to see 50-percent new material? The answer’s ‘no.’ ” We’re gonna do “the hits.” It’s like that Fall documentary. We never had any hits! But really, I missed it. I missed playing “[Memories of] Jacqueline 1906.” I really did. I needed that. I enjoyed going back to my past. To me, we hadn’t made a bad record. And I was happy to do that. That said, we’re working on something that’s gonna be fucking great. We’re excited about it.
Why not play some of the old songs while touring as the Circulatory System?
We’re gonna throw some in. Especially after this album comes out. For some of the songs, I was like, “we should save this for Circulatory,” but John was like, “we’ll play it anyway.” Why not. And we have. [In the past], we played “The Opera House” as the Circulatory System. We won’t do one where Bill’s the lead vocalist. That doesn’t sound right.
And you’ve got this whole new double album of new material. It would be a real shame if that never got played live.
John was like, “we should play some of those!” And a couple of the songs actually started as Circulatory System songs, but then Olivia got back together. There where I was focusing entirely.
You guys played a tribute fairly soon after Bill’s passing. Is that part of the healing process?
Yeah. I played with Robert Schneider. Indeed it is. I been doing things besides finishing the songs. But I’ve got a couple that we did at Bill’s house that aren’t gonna be on the the album. Olivia’s are all double albums. Thank you, Frank Zappa. I got that from him — put everything you can on two records, rather than just “eight great songs.” Music is totally part of healing. It can’t not be.
The music is generally not a straight forward narrative, but I assume you’re pulling things from your life to inform the songs.
Definitely, yeah. But the abstract shit is part of my thing. That’s part of my life. I say shit all the time, and some of it’s good, and I write it down.
Has the MS affected your song writing at all? Has it given you a different perspective?
Not really, actually. To be honest. When I get angry, I feel bad. I’m lucky enough that I’m not really working, so I can just lay down. I don’t need to write some angry song. I’m still singing the same things about the universe and relationships.
You’re not channeling those emotions into the music?
I don’t think so. It’s a drag, but whatever. If you can paint pictures and make music, it’s beautiful. And I’m married. It’s beautiful.
That was fairly recent.
Yeah, [Jeff] Mangum curated All Tomorrow’s Parties. And it was right after that. She said, “yes,” and I said, “have you ever been to Las Vegas,” and she said, “no.” And I said, “why don’t we get married there?” For no reason. Neither of us really gamble. It was really fun. We stayed there for six days. I gambled a little bit, but once I’d get $60, I’d just stop.
I’ve got images of Elvis presiding over it, in my mind.
We stood in front of the sign that says “Welcome to Las Vegas.”
You got married in the street?
Yeah! In front of the sign! It was great!
Just to do it?
Yeah, just to do it! “Fuck it.” It was stupid and fun!
How has been married affected your life?
It hasn’t really. We just hang out. We’ve been going out for a few years. So we just have a ring now. I mean, I’ve turned into a total asshole and she’s a bitch [laughs]. Kidding! We’re not gonna have kids or anything?
How much of your time is spent creating music, these days?
Forty-percent, maybe? Sadly, I just can’t get any more of the medicine — the happy pills.
They’ll only prescribe you a certain amount.
And when you don’t have enough?
I just go to sleep. I got a few hours and I go to sleep. I hate that. I used to like going to sleep. “A Sleepy Company,” you know? But if you’re trying to do things, and that’s defeating you…
That’s a fair amount? Are you still painting?
I’m drawing picture more than painting these days. It’s messy. But I have been painting a lot more recently.
Do you paint more when you’re making more music? Does one thing lead to the other?
It kind of does, actually. I’ll see a painting across a room a see a spot where a a little more light would make it pop out more, and I’ll also play an overdub on a song.
You’ve done a lot of art for your albums. How closely are those two things related?
Quite a lot, actually. I’m trying to get something together for the new Olivia record. We don’t have a cover yet. I’m trying to get a few things together. I just need to pick something that says a lot about the songs. Do they relate to each each other? Yes they do?
If I could use an example — [Music from the Unrealized Film Script] Dusk at Cubist Castle — how is the artwork tied to those songs?
No comment. I mean — if I go one about it, it will sound really silly. It does relate to it. Keep it a mystery, you know?